Book Review:
Needleman's Time and the Soul

Book Review on: Time and the Soul by Jacob Needleman, NY, 1998 offered by JEA.

Though J. Needleman - professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University - never comments on the Epistle to Philemon, what he says about time and the genre he chooses for communication of his thoughts may, in fact, be of considerable importance to our seminar, esp. as we reflect upon the meaning of v. 15.

As conversation partner on the contemporary experience of bondage to time and the longing for freedom for meaningful time, Needleman's opening lines are an invitation to read on: "This book is addressed to everyone who is starved for time. That is, it is addressed to everyone. We are living in a culture that traps us into doing too many things, taking on too many responsibilities, facing too many choices and saying yes to too many opportunities. Nearing the end of over a century of inventions designed to save time, we find ourselves bereft of time itself." (p. vii). He goes on to speak of the "new poverty...of our affluence," the "famine of a culture that has chosen things over time;" he is interested in the "aching question of our era": "What used to be considered a sign of success - being busy, having many responsibilities, being involved in many projects or activities - is now being felt as an affliction. It is leading us nowhere. More and more it is being experienced as meaningless.

This is the real significance of our problem with time. It is a crisis of meaning. What has disappeared is meaningful time....The root of our modern problem with time is neither technological, sociological, economic, nor psychological. It is metaphysical. It is a question of the meaning of human life itself. The aim of this book is to uncover the link between our pathology of time and the eternal mystery of what a human being is meant to be in the universal scheme of things." (p. viii).

Needleman observes, moreover, as regards the angle of vision on this matter of time, "Do we have the courage to approach the question of time from the depths of our heart? Before we try to face the question of time as a problem, the problem of how to manage our lives, can we stay with it long enough to hear it calling to us purely and simply as a question, the question of who we are and why we are alive at all? It takes courage to stay with it as a question when all around us, with ever more insistence, our culture treats is as a problem, and makes it into a problem. A problem is something we are supposed to deal with; a problem demands that we do something, change something. A problem is something we are supposed to solve. But time is more than a problem; it is a question, perhaps the greatest question that a man or woman can face and perhaps the most important one. Such great questions cannot be answered with the part of the mind that solves problems. They need to be deeply felt and experienced long, long before they can begin to be answered. We need to feel the question of time much more deeply and simply than we do. We agitate about the problem of time, but we seldom feel what it means." (pp. 23f).

The creative genre by which Needleman chooses to help the reader "feel" the question of time is a mixture between analytical reflection (as the above quotations, for example) and a novel in progress. The latter is the "story" of a fifty-something adult, Eliot by name, who is given the opportunity to go back in time and observe/meet his younger self. In an early poignant encounter the older Eliot gives the younger Eliot a ride in his car. When the older asks the younger "Where are you going?" Needleman pauses to ponder what this question means: "How shall this scene now proceed? How to understand what happens in us when we first make contact with our fate? Fate: the word has lost its meaning for us, it has become a cliche; at best a superstition. But suppose there really exists such a thing as fate? [could one speak here of "destiny"? jea]. Suppose, underneath the windswept ripples of our everyday battles with time, or anxious, everyday efforts to steer our lives, there exists a deeper current carrying something essential in us to a predetermined future? And what would that something be within ourselves that lives, or tries to live, wants to live, beneath the surface of time as we know it; that wants to break into the daylight of our consciousness - there to grow with us, perhaps? What happens in an individual when we first feel that something deeper within ourselves is calling to us, trying to see us, not only from the past but from the future - a future we cannot even imagine in the midst of our crowded, complicated minutes, hours and days, but which is in fact what we are really starving for when we are starved for time? To the question, "Where are you going?" the young Eliot is tempted to answer, "Anywhere, I don't care." But instead he says, simply: "Home." (pp. 11f).

As I listen and watch with Needleman's Eliot I am wondering just a little about the encounter between Philemon and Onesimus and the comments about time and the "tacha" of (conjectured?) purpose in v. 15. Not that there is some parallel in a psychoanalytical sense, but something that is to be discovered in the Christian oikos about identity and responsibility for other douloi - one with the others - in time as history and as aionion. Such a discovery would have a profound effect on the question of the subject and addressees of the Philemon letter, i.e. that both Philemon and Onesimus are the subject(s)/addressee(s) of concern.

One further excerpt from Needleman would perhaps be helpful when the younger Eliot introduces the older Eliot to his parents and his teacher Mr. Ellison at a parent/teacher conference: "The older Eliot had thought he was going back in time only in order to see, to study - as he had come to understand these words. But very soon he begins to realize that he cannot really see his younger self without the arising of a certain love, a certain yearning and a certain trust. How insane to believe we can grasp anything essential about time without opening the heart. There is nothing about time we can perceive or hold on to without the maturation of our conscious feelings. The god of time laughs at our little watches and calendars. Like God Himself, time punishes us by simply leaving us to our own devices. What could be more painful than to try to manipulate the greatest force in the universe - time - with our nervous minds, or anxious hearts, our tortured bodies? Until we can let in what the masters of wisdom called 'the attention that comes from the source,' the wind that rises from the center of the world, or simply 'divine love,' we can no more 'deal' with time than we can 'deal' with volcanoes or earthquakes or the movement of the earth around the sun. The older Eliot slowly regains his composure. Mercifully, the vision of all that he has done and not done for his mother and father recedes back to the bottom of the ocean where conscience dwells. His mind slowly becomes bright and alert, but his mask begins to crack again when his mother goes on. 'Eliot has spoken very highly of you, Mr. Ellison.' This is a lie. Why is his other lying? The older Eliot is aware that his father is standing rock still. Is he staring at him? Does he suspect something? The older Eliot's knees tremble again as his mother, sipping charmingly at her cup of punch and smiling with that sweetly feminine light in her eyes, says, 'What do you think of our Eliot?' She puts her arm around the young man's shoulder. The older man cannot speak. He is choked with emotion. He looks to his father, who is still standing helplessly to the side. There is a drama being played out here, [the older Eliot] knows that. A man or a woman spends his or her whole life playing and replaying one scene - with his mother or father. And time moves us on between the enactment and the re-enactment of this scene, this scene which never moves, never changes is never done with. The older Eliot could feel the touch of his mother's hand on his shoulder..."

This encounter with but a portion of Needleman's "Time" - he goes on in the second half of the book to develop a more prescriptive development which is of little use to our seminar on Philemon - helps perhaps to imagine ways to think about v. 15 and perhaps the depth of change longed for in the (prayerful intercession-?) optative in v. 20 regarding Philemon becoming the bearer of Onesimus' name.

[the Needleman bibliography at the end of the book is to be recommended for further reading. To this we might also add Grudin's book on "Time and the Art of Living."]

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